Beijing has never been shy of architectural audacity, the city of 20 million people home to some of the most gravity defying skyscrapers and towers in the world. But when it comes to hotels, the Chinese capital is proving the old adage that good things come in small packages.
Ten years ago you were lucky to find a hotel in Beijing that didn’t take its cues from Stalinist architecture, but today a growing cache of design-driven properties are scattered from the Summer Palace to Sanlitun. And more Australians than ever are checking in – Aussies are now one of the top-five inbound international source markets for China (up from number 10 in 2007), with Beijing generally the first stop on tourist itineraries.
And the trend is only set to continue thanks to new initiatives such as free visas for those in town on transit for 72 hours or less, a web of high-speed railways linking the country, plus the promise of hassle-free, and highly affordable, flights. When you next visit, here are some of my favourite boutique beds from which to base your exploration.
The Opposite House
With its emerald-green glass façade flanked by the glitzy shops of Sanlitun Village, Beijing’s hottest pocket or retail real estate, The Opposite House is hard to miss. Designed by Japanese architect Kengo Kuma, the 99-room property is one of Beijing’s boutique tastemakers – five years after opening it still sets the standard when it comes to innovative yet functional interiors. Studios are all blonde wood and white walls, with floor-to-ceiling windows and hinoki tubs and lacquered Chinese chests; larger accommodations come with private balconies and Jacuzzis. Niceties range from complimentary minibar snacks and Wi-Fi to organic Tibetan amenities plus iPads and iPods preloaded with music and neighbourhood guides. The lack of in-room art is more than made up for in the soaring atrium lobby, where contemporary exhibitions might see installations by Gao Xiaowu or Li Xiaofeng on display.
Who stays there: The Opposite House is a magnet for celebrities: Beyonce Knowles and Matt Dillon stay here when they are in town, checking in to the duplex penthouse apartment.
Top marks: There are only three restaurants and bars, but each is well worth a visit. Begin the day with homemade granola and plum compote in the light-filled Living Room and end it in Sureno and Mesh – the former an unassuming Mediterranean restaurant popular for its share plates and the latter an oh-so-cool bar with low-slung sofas and jazzy tunes. Keep a look out for the hotel’s Chinese restaurant, opening in 2014 and specialising in Peking duck.
Good to know: Sanlitun is Beijing’s nightlife hub and things can get rowdy on Bar Street, the strip that the hotel calls home. Higher-level rooms and those facing north are your best bet for uninterrupted sleep.
A series of restored Bauhaus-style factories and warehouses, Beijing’s 798 Art District is now home to some of China’s most avant-garde and adventurous galleries, not to mention boutiques, cafés and the Grace hotel. Despite the area’s proletariat past the hotel is positively posh, each of its 30 rooms individually designed with contemporary artworks and replica Ming-dynasty furniture lacquered in bold colours: canary yellow, lime green and azure. Gaze out your window and you’ll spot larger-than-life Laughing Man sculptures by Yue Minjun or graffiti murals by the district’s artists in residence. Champagne breakfasts are served on a pleasant terrace when the weather is warm; otherwise, enjoy seafood-focused menus paired with cocktails as colourful as the neighbourhood – try house special the Grace, a muddle of vodka, pear puree, apple juice and lemongrass.
Who stays there: Those looking to channel their inner artist. There are dozens of galleries to browse and many local creators live on-site, showcasing their work to curious visitors.
Top marks: The hotel offers a number of immersive tours including one led in conjunction with the Ullens Center for Creative Art, just a couple of buildings over, that will see you visiting surrounding studios.
Good to know: As appealing as it is to rub shoulders with contemporary Chinese artists, the hotel’s location is on the outskirts of Beijing – pick the wrong time of day to commute into town and you’ll find yourself stuck in snarling traffic.
The 16 rooms at this intimate guesthouse occupy the top floor of a low-rise building, once a primary school, just shy of the Workers’ Stadium in Sanlitun. The owners launched the complex with two restaurants and a bar – Lan Na Thai, Hazara Indian and Face Bar – before opening the rooms, designed with luscious antique furniture, colourful fabrics in red, gold and black, silkscreen prints and wooden carvings from around the region. Requisite modern conveniences, including flatscreen TVs and free Wi-Fi, round out the offerings. In warmer months, Face Bar serves up an interesting high tea that pairs Asian savouries – mini steamed buns, spring rolls, shrimp cakes – with pastries and sweets.
Who stays there: Those looking for a taste of traditional Beijing check in here for the Chinoiserie fantasy just steps from the city’s most happening entertainment districts.
Top marks: Room rates are extremely reasonable (you can stay for less than AU$100) and include complimentary minibar snacks plus breakfast.
Good to know: Face Bar, just two floors down from the hotel, is open until 2am, and drinkers spill onto an alfresco terrace in summer months. If the noise bothers you, we suggest joining in – there are half a dozen varieties of mojito on offer here including one made with chilli.
In the middle of atmospheric Baochao Hutong in Beijing’s historic heart, The Orchid’s 10 rooms ring two serene inner courtyards, offering a rare glimpse into traditional life in the Chinese capital. Accommodations are individual in their design and layout and may come with private gardens, hutong views or sun-drenched terraces. High-ceilinged rooms are neat and minimal, designed in earthy hues with thoughtful add-ons such as heated floors – a necessity during Beijing’s bone-chilling winters. When the mercury rises, guests at the hotel’s restaurant and bar spill into the courtyard, sipping imported wines complemented by a comprehensive collection of boutique Chinese beers.
Who stays there: Those who want to live like a Beijinger, with all the comforts of a five-star hotel.
Top marks: The rooftop terrace offers stellar views of Beijing’s Drum and Bell Towers and the historic hutong (narrow alleys lined with low-rise, courtyard-style houses) neighbourhoods that surround.
Good to know: If you don’t have an experienced taxi driver, finding the hotel can become an adventure. Getting away is equally challenging – get the hotel to call you a cab well in advance of your departure time.
Aman at the Summer Palace
Few hotels enjoy a more exclusive location than this Amanresort, occupying a series of Qing- and Ming-era buildings adjoining the Summer Palace and once the guesthouse of Empress Dowager Cixi. Rooms and suites surround landscaped courtyard gardens laced with bamboo and nod to Chinese design with Jin clay floor tiles, exposed wooden roof beams, traditional screens and four-poster beds. You won’t want to leave, so it’s a good thing that the hotel comes with five restaurants and bars including a Chinese eatery specialising in Cantonese cuisine plus Naoki, uniting fine French with Japanese kaiseki fare. Other diversions include a state-of-the-art cinema, library stocked with glossy books, and a subterranean fitness centre and spa with its own Pilates studio, 25-metre pool and juice bar.
Who stays there: Repeat visitors to Beijing. If you’ve seen the sights, Aman offers ample space for quiet contemplation.
Top marks: Perks here include exclusive access to the 290-hectare Summer Palace once the crowds have departed, not to mention one of the best cultural programs of any Beijing hotel – when we visited, a spindly octogenarian painted delicate calligraphy in the lobby.
Good to know: Set 15 kilometres northwest of the city centre, the Aman is a world away from the chaotic streets of the CBD. There’s not a lot to do in the area – this is the kind of place you come to and don’t leave for a couple of days.